Fox News' Inner Struggle With Climate Misinformation

Research has shown that Fox News is a major driving force behind climate denial, decreasing viewer trust in scientists and the existence of global warming. In 2013, only 28 percent of Fox News’ climate science segments were accurate, although that was an improvement over its 7 percent accuracy in 2012.

Fox News anchor Shepard Smith has been one of the few voices on the network willing to accept the scientific reality of human-caused climate change. On the August 10 edition of Fox News’ Shepard Smith Reporting, Smith reported on biased industry-funded science by Coca Cola, and made the connection to fossil fuel-funded climate denial studies.

Lisa Kennedy Montgomery: It’s actually very brilliant marketing on the part of Coca Cola, because they realize that if someone hears that there’s a scientific study behind a reported fact, then they take that, they internalize it and take it to be true … So, what Coca Cola has decided to do is use that “science” in their favor. And if only they could find a few scientists willing to report that it’s not the calories but the lack of exercise that’s making people obese, then they can use this as a sort of an underground marketing strategy.
Shepard Smith: Well this reminds me of two things. The article in the New York Times this weekend pointed out, it reminds you of exactly what the tobacco industry did back in the day, and more recently it also reminds you of what the climate deniers, the climate change deniers are doing as well.

In fact, just 2 days later, the Fox Business News show Varney & Co. used that strategy in an interview with Roy Spencer. Spencer is one of the fewer than 3 percent of climate scientists whose research rejects or minimizes the human contribution to global warming, and who infamously made comments about “global warming Nazis.”

The interview began not with a discussion of science, but rather with criticism of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Both host Stuart Varney and Roy Spencer claimed that the plan would increase energy bills for America’s poor. The Obama administration claims the opposite – that the plan will save the average American family nearly $85 on their annual energy bill in 2030. Although electricity prices are expected to rise, utility bills are projected to fall due to improvements in energy efficiency spurred by the rule, and hence reduced electricity consumption.

Spencer also claimed that wind and solar energy are “much more expensive than fossil fuels,” which is simply false. In any case, if conservatives are really concerned about the possibility of rising energy bills for low-income families, they can replace these regulations with a revenue-neutral carbon fee whose rebates would offset any increase in electricity costs.

Unfortunately the interview didn’t include any such constructive policy debate. Instead it shifted to science denial, with Spencer repeating the false claim of no global warming over the past 18 years. In reality, during that time the oceans, surface, and even the lower atmosphere have continued to warm. Unexpectedly, host Stuart Varney pushed back against this global warming denial, pointing out that 14 of the last 15 years have been the hottest on record, and Spencer was forced to admit that the planet has continued to warm.

Consistent with his status as one of the fewer than 3% of climate contrarian researchers, Spencer also contested the human contribution to global warming in the interview, using the same strategies discussed on Shepard Smith’s show. Spencer claimed,

We have published evidence and there’s getting to be more and more papers published in the scientific literature pointing out that about half of the warming we’ve seen since the 1950s has been natural rather than man-made. It’s because of more frequent El Niño activity.

In reality, very few scientific papers have blamed global warming on El Niño. Spencer is one of the few to make this argument, specifically arguing that changes in El Niño have changed cloud cover on Earth, which in turn impacts global temperatures. However, his analysis has been shown to be flawed in subsequent research by prominent climate scientists like Kevin Trenberth and Andrew Dessler. Scientist Barry Bickmore described Spencer’s study as a “curve-fitting paper,” using an approach also described by climate scientist Ray Pierrehumbert as “How to cook a graph in three easy lessons.”

The big problem with Spencer’s argument is that there have been a roughly equal number of El Niño and La Niña events since 1950, so the temporary surface temperature cooling effects of the latter have cancelled out the temporary surface warming effects of the former during that time. These short-term cycles can’t explain the rapid global warming we’ve observed over the past 65 years.

In the latest IPCC report, the world’s top climate scientists stated with 95 percent confidence that humans are responsible for the majority of the global warming since 1950, and that we’re most likely responsible for all of it. Although there are a few outliers like Roy Spencer who publish flawed research arguing to the contrary, there is a 97 percent expert consensus on human-caused global warming.

However, as noted on Shepard Smith’s show, it’s smart marketing to focus on the outlier studies that argue the contrarian position, because “if someone hears that there’s a scientific study behind a reported fact, then they take that, they internalize it and take it to be true.” That’s exactly how Fox News markets global warming denial on most of its programs.


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